The Insatiable Political Money Appetite

Some years ago a friend’s relative ran for political office.  The friend sheepishly asked if we might make a contribution to the campaign.  I didn’t know the relative, but we wanted to be supportive, so we kicked in a modest sum.  It’s the only political contribution I’ve made in recent memory.

What happened next was that my email address, and the fact that I’d made a financial contribution, got shared with other politicians of the same political party — and suddenly I was receiving regular emails from lots of elected officials and erstwhile candidates for national and statewide office.  The list of my political email correspondents continues to grow, and every one of the messages, without exception, seeks money.  I’ll get four or five emails a day from the candidates themselves, their campaign managers, their political directors, and even other politicians who are supporting their campaigns.

67815-mr_creosote-monty-python-obesity“I’m asking you for $5.”  “Robert, did you see the message from X?”  “We need your help to meet our March fundraising goal.”  “Don’t be fooled — this is not a safe seat.”  “We’re counting on you to help us crush the dark forces of evil represented by the other party.”  (OK, the last one isn’t a verbatim quote, but that’s the gist.)

It’s amazing how many fundraising appeals are sent, and how constant the barrage is.  I suppose I could remove myself from the lists, but I find it interesting to get even this limited perspective into how our current political system works.  It’s all about money, and scare tactics, and a parade of horribles designed to wrest a few bucks from the common man.  And interestingly, every email with a desperate request for money that I get makes me less inclined to make another contribution.  The fundraising pleas aren’t only manipulative, they also show that if I did make another contribution I’d only be feeding the beast, encouraging an even more overwhelming barrage of emails, and probably causing the campaigns to hire more people to do even more fundraising.

The appetite of political campaigns for money is as insatiable as the appetite of Monty Python’s colossal diner.  You wonder if, like the diner, one day it’s all going to blow up.

Advertisements

The First Amendment, Revisited

The Supreme Court’s recent decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission has provoked a lot of critical comment. Much of the criticism has been directed at the majority opinion, which struck down aggregate limits restricting how much money a donor may contribute to candidates for federal office, political parties, and political action committees.

In McCutcheon, the Court held, by a 5-4 vote, that the limits violate the First Amendment and rejected arguments that the limits could be justified by a governmental interest in preventing either political corruption or the appearance of such corruption. Critics argue that the decision will lead to a political process dominated by wealthy oligarchs who shovel money to their preferred candidates and causes and thereby control American public policy. That’s the position of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, for example.

The dissenting opinion in McCutcheon is at least as interesting as the majority ruling, however. In the dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer, joined by three other Justices, articulated a concept of “collective speech” and asserted that “the First Amendment advances not only the individual’s right to engage in political speech, but also the public’s interest in preserving a democratic order in which collective speech matters.” It’s not entirely clear what Justice Breyer means by “collective speech,” but he obviously believes that the interest in “collective speech” can override individual First Amendment expression.

Over the years, the meaning and scope of the First Amendment has been shaped by a series of Supreme Court decisions. The jurisprudence has long since moved past the concept that “speech” is limited to the spoken or written word; it is well established that acts — like burning a draft card or wearing a protest t-shirt — are protected. Contributing money to a political candidate whom you agree with, or to a cause that you support, is similarly a protected act of speech.

Will McCutcheon open a new frontier in the evolution of the First Amendment, and if so should we be more concerned about the concepts underlying the majority opinion or the dissent? Floyd Abrams, a lion of the First Amendment bar who has been involved in many cases addressing free speech issues, has posted an interesting article that argues that the conceptual underpinnings of the dissent are “deeply disquieting.” Abrams notes that the concept of protecting “collective speech” seems to be inconsistent with prior Supreme Court decisions and is a slippery notion that could allow the government to restrict the amount of speech about which candidate or cause to support — a result that seems inconsistent with the First Amendment rather than in furtherance of it.

The First Amendment is the first item in the Bill of Rights. That context indicates that it is intended to protect individual rights, not “collective speech.” When a First Amendment issue arises, I tend to support the notion of more speech rather than less — with the decisions about what to say, and when, left to individuals, not to the government or to some vague notion of what furthers the “collective” good.

I Really Don’t Care About The Money

We’ve got a hot U.S. Senate race in Ohio this year:  incumbent Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, is looking to fend off the challenge of Republican Josh Mandel.

I’ll write more about the race as we get closer to the election.  For now, I’ll just say that I’m mystified by the tactics of the Brown campaign.  I get their e-mails constantly, and they all are about money.  How much money Mandel is raising, how much money “special interests” are contributing to support Mandel’s candidacy, how many TV ads have been purchased as a result of the money contributed to the Mandel campaign, and how much money the Brown campaign needs to make up for the cash landslide that is tumbling into Ohio.

Money, money, money!  Obviously, the Brown campaign believes that the constant drumbeat of news about what donors have contributed to Mandel’s campaign will spur me to open my checkbook, again and again, to give money to Sherrod Brown.  My question is:  why do they think that is what will happen?  Isn’t it equally plausible that I’ll just get sick to death of being hit up for money and immediately delete their e-mails, unread?  (After all, we’re still six months away from the election — how many more money-grubbing e-mails do they think I can bear?)  Or that I’ll just give up because the money lead for the Mandel campaign apparently is insurmountable?  Or that I’ll conclude that the Brown campaign doesn’t care about anything except cold, hard cash?

Political campaigns used to be about candidates, issues, speeches and rallies, now they are about money, money, and more money.  We are all the poorer for this.

Hey, Big Spender!

We all hear a lot about the enormous sums spent by outside groups on the 2010 elections.  Most of the complaints aired in the media have been about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the conservative issue advocacy groups that are supporting Republican candidates.  I therefore was surprised to learn that the biggest spender in this election, other than the two political parties themselves, is the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (“AFSCME”), a union that represents governmental employees.

It turns out that three of the five biggest spenders this election cycle are unions.  According to this article in the Wall Street Journal, AFSCME is the biggest spender by a considerable margin, having shelled out $87.5 million to support Democratic candidates.  That is $12.5 million more than the second place finisher, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has spent $75 million.  American Crossroads and Crossroads GOP, two groups that have attracted a lot of media attention because of their affiliation with Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, have collectively spent $65 million.  Rounding out the top five are the Service Employees International Union, which has spent $44 million, and the National Education Association, a teachers union that has spent $40 million.

When we hear people complaining about the glut of money in politics, we need to remember that the money flows in from both sides.  If Republicans are supposedly in the pockets of business interests because of the political activities of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where does that leave Democrats who have received enormous support from government employees and teachers who directly benefited from the federal “stimulus” legislation and the special “stimulus” spending specifically designed to help teachers keep their jobs?

If you are convinced, as I am, about the need to cut government spending as part of the effort to bring the budget into balance — which inevitably will mean cutting the federal spending that helps to support the jobs and benefits of government employees and teachers — you need to be concerned about how much money is being funneled into political campaigns by government employee and teachers unions.  Only the hopelessly naive would believe that Democratic politicians who get elected thanks to large-scale union spending are going to take a hard look at government spending cuts that will eliminate union jobs.

Taxpayer-Subsidized Political Contributions

General Motors recently filed documents with the Federal Election Commission disclosing that GM contributed some $90,000 to political candidates.  The GM spokesman quoted in the linked article seemed irked that anyone would think there was a problem with this, saying that GM isn’t going to “sit on the sidelines” while other companies shovel cash at political candidates in an attempt to influence policy.  So, GM will make contributions to candidates who support “a strong auto industry.”

The problem, of course, is that the federal government (that is, U.S. taxpayers) own 61 percent of GM and are subsidizing its operations.  While that is the case, GM shouldn’t spend one penny toward political contributions of any kind.  Any money GM earns should be devoted to paying off its debt to taxpayers and making the company more attractive to investors when GM tries to make a public offering in the near future.

It also is problematic that GM is, in effect, using taxpayer money to pick and choose candidates to support, with the inevitable acid test being whether they support “a strong auto industry” — meaning, of course, candidates who supported the GM bailout and continue to think we should do whatever is necessary to prop up the sagging, poorly managed, uncompetitive domestic auto industry.  In short, even though public opinion polls show that Americans now strongly oppose the bailout culture, our tax dollars are perversely being spent by GM to encourage the continuation of that culture.  It’s just another reason to make a change in how things are being done in Washington, D.C., and in Detroit.